Trouble in the Tropic of Cancer

By Michael Fumento

Reason Magazine, April 1991
Copyright 1991 Reason Magazine

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In 1972, the year President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, one out of four Americans could expect to contract cancer, and one out of five could expect to die from it. Eighteen years and more than $18 billion later, cancer still strikes at that same rate, and one American in five will still die of it.

In 1970, about 300,000 Americans died of cancer; in 1989, about 500,000 did. The increase in yearly cancer deaths between then and now is more than twice the total number of AIDS deaths over the course of the entire epidemic. Some of this increase is due to the aging of population (as a person gets older odds of contracting cancer increase). But even accounting for this, both cancer and cancer deaths are on the upswing. Only heart disease kills more Americans each year, but heart-disease mortality has dropped dramatically over the last two decades.

If you find this disturbing, you’re not alone. In 1980, Ralph W. Moss wrote a book about it, The Cancer Syndrome. Now he’s dusted off his manuscript, updated it considerably, and released it under a new title. And the damned thing is, he found here has been little progress in cancer research in the last decade.

Moss was assistant director of public affairs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, probably the nation’s most prestigious cancer clinic, but claims he was fired for his "opposition to their coverup of positive data on laetrile." This action is obviously unforgiven, and it lends to the book a sort of dark air of pessimism.

The cancer industry, says Moss, abounds with cynicism. It seeks to perpetuate itself by administering treatments of dubious value, by announcing breakthroughs that aren’t, and by refusing to fund — or even attempting to shut down — competition.

Moss acknowledges that there has been some progress in treating cancers of the breast, skin, prostate, and testicles. But the prognosis for most cancers is as bleak is ever. If you’re diagnosed with cancer of the liver or pancreas, you’re still practically guaranteed an early visit by the Grim Reaper. Good, solid life-extending advances have been few and far between.

Not that you’d know this from listening to pronouncements from the cancer establishment, Moss’s term for a collection of public and private institutions including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and Sloan-Kettering. These pronouncements include the much-ballyhooed claim that the cure rate for cancer has jumped from 40 percent to about 50 percent in the last decade.

"Cures" in cancer are generally measured by surviving five years past diagnosis. This, in itself, is a bit misleading. By this standard, Jill Ireland, who recently died of breast cancer, was "cured."

But a standard is a standard — unless it is changed. From 1973 to 1978, five-year survival time had increased from 38.5 percent to 40.1 percent, hardly a dramatic improvement. So, says Moss, the "cancer warriors ... found a more impressive set of figures to bring before Congress, a variant on the five-year survival statistic called the relative survival rate." This new standard assumed that a certain percentage of those dying of cancer between diagnosis and year five would have died of something else, a heart attack or axe murder or what have you. By applying this new standard, suddenly cures jump from about 40 percent to 49.2 percent and the crowd cheers.

"This is where the ’fifty percent cured’ claim comes from," writes Moss. "Heady from this paper success, the NCI and the National Cancer Advisory Board have called for doubling this alleged cure rate by the year 2000. Such a vast improvement, we are told, will mean the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives." Or at least a few researchers’ jobs.

The cancer establishment plays other games with statistics. Figures for blacks — who contract and die from cancer at much higher rates — are listed separately, preventing them from depressing the statistics. And in its 1990 budget request, the NCI notes, "In 1971, only 35 percent of patients were cured of cancer .. today half of all cancer patients can be cured," thereby neatly confusing actual cures from 1971 with potential cures today.

Such horseplay with facts and statistics is hardly unique to the cancer field. The AIDS industry pumped up its research funds by exaggerating the scope of he epidemic and now maintains that funding by exaggerating medical progress to a point where it treats the toxic drug AZT — which extends life an average of only six months — as some kind of miracle pharmaceutical, simply because it hasn’t come up with much else.

But Moss, after spending a chapter each on the drawbacks and limitations (probably somewhat overstated) of radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy — the so-called proven methods — goes on to claim that pseudoprogress in these areas has resulted in dampening the progress of many promising alternative therapies, including bacterial toxins injected directly into tumors, hydrazine sulfate, antineoplastines, nutritional therapy, and megadoses of Vitamin C and laetrile.

For example, the cancer establishment vehemently rejects laetrile as a treatment for cancer. But Moss notes that in raw form it has been used for centuries as an anticancer therapy, that there is a strong theoretical basis for its alleged ability to inhibit tumor growth, and that one of the most respected scientists at Sloan-Kettering believed that he had demonstrated the substance’s anticancer value in laboratory animals and defended the results until his death.

Moss knows that using the word conspiracy is the kiss of death, landing him in the same camp with grassy knollers and those who claim that fluoridation is a communist plot. So he expressly disavows such a claim, asserting instead,

The suppression of unorthodox methods — and the promotion of the orthodox approach — takes place mainly at an objective, unconscious level. It is an outgrowth of underlying economic and social trends rather than of conscious design .... It is the system itself, rather than any particular clique of individuals, which is really to blame for failure to make progress against the cancer problem. In particular, the fact that cancer management is itself a big business means that it must function according to the rules of profit-oriented institutions.

Treatments that come from outside the establishment usually use drugs or other substances that are unpatentable and of very little economic interest. Further, their implementation brings no glory to the establishment. Moss easily deflates the American Cancer Society’s claim that effective drugs developed outside the medical establishment are readily made available after normal testing by showing that the two drugs that the ACS cites as examples — penicillin and the Salk polio vaccine — suffered tremendously because they came from outside the system.

Nevertheless, Moss could have gained a lot more credibility if he had only discussed some current allegedly quack treatments that truly are quackery. He never does. In fact, several times the Hoxey herbal treatment is mentioned, somewhat favorably on one occasion. without any mention that when its developer, Hoxey, was himself diagnosed with prostate cancer, he eschewed his own treatment and instead received conventional therapy. One can easily get the idea from Moss’s book that any alternative to orthodox cancer treatment is superior to those promoted by the cancer establishment. This obviously isn’t true, but Moss does convince the reader to take the official pronouncements on alternative therapies with at least a grain of salt.

Moss also provides a service by pointing out that cancer prevention is far more cost-effective than cancer treatment and deserves far more attention than it has received. Unfortunately, he does himself no credit, and his reader no favor, when he twice cites the bizarre, completely unfounded assertion of Samuel Epstein, author of The Politics of Cancer, that oil refineries cause 30 percent to 40 percent of all cancers. But on the whole Moss’s thesis is well-argued and impressively documented. Alternative cancer therapies do deserve serious attention. As the author states in his preface, "A million new cases a year demand no less."


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on cancer and on other diseases.